My family knows of my love for a specific pop culture icon from the 70s and 80s. My love for this icon is so great that on Christmas they bought gifts themed around this man. I gladly wear my “happy little tree” pair of socks with my Afro covered pajama pants with little trees also printed on them. You ask my kids today who’s daddy’s favorite artist, they won’t tell you: DaVinci, Warhol, Picasso, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Monet, or Van Gogh (although I would be extremely impressed if they managed to pull out those legends). They would collectively scream out: Bob Ross!
Have you ever watched Bob Ross on TV or Netflix? He is that guy with an Afro who paints “happy little trees.” Ever since I was a young kid, I had a love for this man and his craft. In fact, every time I have been sick my remedy wasn’t saltines, ginger-ale, and Vicks. It was Bob and Bob; “The Price is Right’’ with Bob Barker and watching Bob Ross paint on TV. Bob Ross would always start with an empty canvas and within 30 minutes that emptiness would be filled with the most glorious sight, “happy little tree” included. I was always thrown back by how nothing could become something instantly. Additionally, throughout the process, I would always doubt that empty canvas could be transformed, “No way … No way” was my go-to response to his work. How does that mess of paint on his palette become something so beautiful? The man’s mixtures of paints, and joyful banter would create something mesmerizing and memorable. God similarly works with the empty and void to make a more mesmerizing and memorable work of art.
Although I am not a painter, my kids appreciate that I am fascinated by the arts. Therefore, they attempt to fascinate me as well with their creations. My 18-month toddler sees a canvas and she will make dizzying circles until her arm gets tired. I look and I get dizzy myself; but I affirm, “Good job.” My seven-year-old son doesn’t like drawing, but he occasionally will take a jab at it. One time he drew a picture of Jesus. I couldn’t tell if it was Jesus or an octopus. Yet, I looked, I gazed (as if looking at fine art) and I affirmed, “What an interesting picture of Jesus. Good job.” My eight-year-old daughter on the other hand loves to draw. She will start a beautiful picture and then won’t stop until that canvas is full of all sorts of things. There is very little room for anything. No empty space. Yet everything she placed on there is exactly what is intended to be on there, and she will gladly tell you the story of that picture. I look, I gaze, I stare and I say, “This is very very good.” God has designed us similarly. As artist He creates, He fills His canvas, and He doesn’t leave space for void or emptiness. Yet everything on that canvas is designed specifically and uniquely for us.
God has always worked in the mess. In the beginning God worked with the formless and void. And He separated. And as He separated, He gave purpose. This beautiful mess had a sense of order, and details that sometimes go unseen to the naked eye.
Our planet’s axial tilt is 23.5 degrees and because of that detail in God’s creation, complex life can be sustained. Whereas other planets in our galaxy have an almost perfect perpendicular axis, and complex life cannot be sustained. Our placement from the sun is perfect 93 million miles away giving our earth the surface temperature of 14 degrees Celsius. Whereas Venus’ surface temperature is 462 degrees Celsius (863 F) and 46 million miles away from the Sun, and Mars right next door, has surface temp of -63 degrees Celsius (-84 degrees F). Of all the planets named, only one can sustain complex life forms. I am no scientist, but I am a man who loves great art, and that cosmic artistry is too perfect in its details to not admire. If the creator took time to place this attention to detail in the cosmos, He did so to make sure that you can live within the world He has created. Additionally, if that much detail was put into the cosmos, then that means that you also were perfectly designed. Your perfections may be invisible to you but are still utterly important. We choose, however, sometimes to live outside of that original design and live in the void.
Sometimes we would rather live in the “formless and void” like before creation began. We think there is more real estate to insert what we want if space is left in our lives. In fact, we even justify that mindset secularly by claiming “that room for more of what we want” is called freedom. Nevertheless, the space that can be taken up by God’s will in our life, which is true freedom, gets filled by things that truly enslave us. St. Augustine in his famous writing “Confessions of St. Augustine,” famously said that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” That restlessness is the void being filled with everything but God. St. Augustine was a man who had plenty of everything. Money, intelligence, social life, etc., and still his mother, St. Monica, noticed that he was still without God. Through her prayers, he began to see that as well. He saw that the longing of his heart was always, from the beginning of time, meant to filled by the creator of all things: God.
The prophet Jeremiah also known as the “prophet of doom” (which is a great title for a rock band, or a professional wrestler) lived during the time of immense emptiness and darkness. Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, and once again the people were in captivity. Nonetheless, Jeremiah was tasked with proclaiming to a broken and hopeless people to hold fast, because God was going to fill the void. Jeremiah was reluctant but God told him, as He tells us, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer. 1:5). Later, God would reveal to Jeremiah; “For I will satisfy the weary soul and every languishing soul I will replenish” (Jer.31:25).
God our creator knows us so intimately. He knows of our weariness, exhaustion, and hopelessness because our lives have chosen the void.
As we finish Holy Week, we ought to ask ourselves a life changing question: Do we let God paint our canvas with what He has created for our life? Do we let him create on our canvas with strokes of His will, so much that there is no void to be filled by anything else, or do we dictate to God what we want, allowing more room for void in our lives to be filled by things not of Him? I will echo in words what the saints communicated with their lives: When we let the creator create, He will always make sure that our life gives witness of the transformation of the tree of life to the “happy little tree” of our salvation.
Anchor columnist Oscar Rivera Jr., is director of Youth Ministry in the diocesan Secretariat for the New Evangelization. email@example.com